Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) for Postpartum Depression

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Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) for Postpartum Depression


Generic NameBrand Name

How It Works

SSRIs improve your mood by increasing your brain's use of a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) called serotonin. You may start to feel better within 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. If you have questions or concerns about your medicines, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your doctor.

Why It Is Used

SSRIs are usually the first-choice medicine for treating postpartum depression (PPD). Sertraline and paroxetine are most often recommended for breast-feeding women.3

SSRIs are also used to relieve severe anxiety and depression during pregnancy and to prevent PPD in high-risk women.

How Well It Works

SSRIs have become the first line of treatment for depression, because they have proved effective for most people and have few side effects.6

Side Effects

Maternal side effects of SSRIs, which tend to improve over time, can include:

  • Nausea, appetite changes, weight loss.
  • Nervousness.
  • Headache.
  • Insomnia, fatigue.
  • Loss of sexual desire or ability.
  • Dizziness.
  • Tremors.
  • Rash (rare).
  • Weight gain (rare) with long-term use.

SSRI treatment is not recommended if you have a seizure disorder or a history of mania (including bipolar disorder). These conditions can be made worse by an SSRI.

Breast-feeding infant side effects

Breast-feeding babies whose mothers take an antidepressant often do not have side effects. But they may. If you are taking an antidepressant while you are breast-feeding, talk to your doctor and your baby's doctor about what types of side effects to look for.

Experts cannot yet say that a mother's antidepressant treatment is completely safe for the breast-fed baby. But research does show which SSRIs seem most safe. Sertraline (Zoloft) is typically the first choice for a breast-feeding mother. Side effects have only been seen in some breast-feeding babies exposed to fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), or citalopram (Celexa).5, 3 Side effects include poor feeding and more crying and irritability.3

Some SSRIs, such as fluoxetine and citalopram, are passed on to the breast-fed baby more than others. Also, every woman uses (metabolizes) and passes on medicine in different amounts. The level of medicine in your breast milk depends in part on when you take your daily dose. Talk to your doctor about when the level of medicine in your breast milk is lowest.

Researchers are studying children who breast-fed while their mothers took SSRIs. So far, they have seen no signs of problems in these children into their preschool years.4

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

Advisories. Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued:

  • An advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. It is not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when doses are changed.
  • A warning about the antidepressants Paxil and Paxil CR (paroxetine) and birth defects. Taking these medicines in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy may increase your chance of having a baby with a birth defect.
  • A warning about taking triptans, used for headaches, with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or SNRIs (selective serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). Taking these medicines together can cause a very rare but serious condition called serotonin syndrome.

What To Think About

SSRIs are effective for treatment of PPD. Some experts recommend using an SSRI to prevent PPD in high-risk women. But studies have not yet proved that this works.5

Talk to your doctor about your postpartum depression symptoms, and decide on what type of treatment is right for you. Counselling and support are considered a first-line treatment for mild to severe PPD. Women with mild PPD are likely to benefit from counselling alone. And those with moderate to severe PPD are advised to combine counselling with antidepressant medicine.

SSRIs make bleeding more likely in the upper gastrointestinal tract (stomach and esophagus). Taking SSRIs with NSAIDs (such as Aleve or Advil) makes bleeding even more likely. Taking medicines that control acid in the stomach may help.2

Women who take an SSRI during pregnancy have a slightly higher chance of having a baby with birth defects. But not treating depression can also cause problems during pregnancy and birth. If you become pregnant, you and your doctor must weigh the risks of taking an SSRI against the risks of not treating depression.

Do not suddenly stop taking an SSRI. Abruptly stopping an SSRI medicine can cause headaches, nervousness, anxiety, or insomnia. An SSRI must be gradually tapered off with supervision from your doctor.

SSRIs and breast-feeding

Treating postpartum depression is very important for both you and your baby. Untreated postpartum depression can have bad effects on your baby's development.1

Breast-feeding is also proved to be good for babies and mothers. This is why breast-feeding is recommended for the first year after childbirth.

  • If your doctor thinks that you need an antidepressant to treat postpartum depression, you do not have to stop breast-feeding. Some SSRIs are barely detectable in breast milk.
  • If you are breast-feeding and need treatment for postpartum depression, talk to your doctor. You can use an SSRI that is known to occur in low levels in breast milk. Also let your baby's doctor know about what medicine you're taking while breast-feeding.
  • If the antidepressant that works best for you is one that has higher levels in breast milk, talk to your baby's doctor about whether formula feeding would be a good choice.

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  1. O'Hara MW, Segre LS (2008). Psychologic disorders of pregnancy and the postpartum period. In RS Gibbs et al., eds., Danforth's Obstetrics and Gynecology, 10th ed., pp. 504–514. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  2. Abajo FJ, Garcia-Rodriguez LA (2008). Risk of upper gastrointestinal tract bleeding associated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and venlafaxine therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry. 65(7): 795–803.
  3. Weissman AM, et al. (2004). Pooled analysis of antidepressant levels in lactating mothers, breast milk, and nursing infants. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161: 1066–1078.
  4. Yonkers KA (2009). Management of depression and psychoses during pregnancy and the puerperium. In RK Creasy et al., eds., Creasy and Resnik's Maternal Fetal Medicine, 6th ed., pp. 1113–1122. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  5. Brockingham I (2004). Postpartum psychiatric disorders. Lancet, 363(9405): 303–310.
  6. Barbui C, et al. (2007). Depression in adults (drug and other physical treatments), search date April 2006. Online version of Clinical Evidence:


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Lisa S. Weinstock, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised July 27, 2010

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